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“When I was a girl,” Mrs. Drax was saying, “they made things to last. And we knew how to darn a sock, let me tell you. When our building was put on the boiler my mother’d save the lukewarm water that came out before it ran hot. We knew how to stretch a penny, by God! Not like this bunch of charlatans! You know how much they charged my George for a sprained finger — his little finger?”
“Frankly,” said the doctor or nurse, “the sooner the better.”
At eight, Reginalda discovered books. At twelve, she discovered boys. Boys seemed not to like smart girls, so she resolved to give up books and to expunge from her vocabulary all incriminatingly clever words — starting with “expunge” and “incriminatingly.” After several unsatisfactory dalliances, she decided instead, at age fourteen, to give up boys. From then on, whenever she was introduced to a boy, she hit at him with large words and literary non sequiturs until he went away. Over time this policy became, as all our policies become, a stereotyped habit: Borrowing a sentence from the heroine of one of her favorite books, she took to saying, on meeting anyone new, “What is your name, and how did you come here, and what are these wet things in this great bag?” It became part of her idiolect. No one understood what it meant; she forgot its origin herself. Then one day, when she was eighteen, a young man quoted back to her the subsequent line: “You had better let them alone; they are loaches for my mother.” It was as if a key had turned deep inside her. They married, and lived happily and unhappily together for thirty years. When George died suddenly, the key turned back and fell out of the lock. She expected daily to die from grief — an expectation that eventually outlived her grief. Twenty years of tomorrows had been unable to shake the conviction that she was going to die soon — tomorrow, probably. Meanwhile the anger she had felt at George’s dying lost precision and became anger at him. She came to believe that she had married badly, that he had been cruel to her, that they had never been happy. She’d made a mistake: She’d been tricked by a silly coincidence and a half-submerged memory. A children’s book had made a sucker of her. Never again. From now on she would assume that others were selfish and cruel and would hurt her if given the chance. She would not give them the chance; she would not give them an opening. And so at seventy she went through the world as if with eyes closed, that no one might poke them.
Reginalda was on her way to see her sons. She went to see them every day, as she did everything she did every day — because she was not long for this world.
She was not afraid of death; in fact she found it quite useful. Because her time was so limited, she was obliged to avoid irritants and bores, and other people were obliged to treat her kindly, or indulgently. Her sons, who treated her neither kindly nor indulgently, had at least to make time for her every day if they did not want to find themselves left out of her will. They always protested that they didn’t care a damn about any will, but she knew better. After all, they made time for her every day.
Reginalda waited to cross the street to the taxi stand. It was a busy street; she had been waiting a long time. As soon as she saw an opening (that is, as soon as the street was quite empty), another car would burst onto the scene — several blocks away perhaps, but bearing down fast. People nowadays never stopped for pedestrians; in fact, they sped up when they saw you, either to beat you to the crosswalk or to frighten you back to the sidewalk. She considered the satisfaction that throwing herself under one of these hot rods would give her, and the lesson it would teach these drivers — if it did not destroy them utterly with guilt. But this was a daydream: She was no longer quite capable of throwing herself under anything, or anywhere. She wasn’t as spry as she’d once been. Indeed, Reginalda shuffled along behind her walker so slowly that onlookers were overwhelmed with awe and respect for what they took to be this little old lady’s superhuman tenacity. In fact, she just moved slow.
She was moving in this way when the accident happened. Suddenly she found herself lying in the street. This sort of thing was occurring more often lately. She blamed it on bad pavement. No one walked anymore these days, so no one cared if the sidewalks were a deadly obstacle course. Possibly someone had knocked her down — she remembered being jostled. She didn’t need anyone to help her up; she just needed someone to put her walker in arm’s reach. But no one wanted to get involved nowadays. They were all scared of lawsuits. They’d sooner watch you drown than toss you a lifesaver they weren’t accredited and authorized to toss. Passersby passed by, bystanders stood by, people stepped over and around her till finally a doctor was dragged in. But doctors were no better than mechanics: If they got their claws into you, they didn’t let go till they’d extracted something expensive. Suddenly she found herself in a hospital! All this fuss over a little spill!
She enjoyed the wheelchair more than she thought she would. Obviously the doctors were in cahoots with the wheelchair crowd, but Reginalda hadn’t signed anything and she figured she might as well make the saleslady earn her commission. So they went for a little test drive. It was almost as comfortable as her rocking chair at home, but had the great advantage over that seat of being completely and effortlessly mobile. All she had to do was screech “Left!” or “Right!” or “Straight!” or “Step on it!” or “Slow down!” or “Hold on!” and the wheelchair instantly complied. (And because it complied instantly Reginalda took care to screech her commands at the last possible moment.) She took a ride around the park, up and down the lanes of the shopping district, and even in and out of an elevator in the courthouse downtown, just to prove that it could be done. People got out of your way when you were in a moving vehicle, by God! Then she remembered that she had been going to see her sons. To test the chair’s batteries, as it were, she pointed the saleslady east on Harper Street, told her to keep an eye peeled for Garland Road (several miles distant), and took a little nap.
June could endure such treatment for just as long as she still believed that Mrs. Drax was suffering. But when Bobby Drax assured her that his mother was always cranky like this (he used a different word, but June preferred “cranky”), her sympathy for the old woman evaporated. She gave Bobby Drax her phone number, address, and email, and then —
“Hey, where you going, chubalub?”
— June went home.
That night, however, she couldn’t sleep. Her dogs sensed it, and couldn’t sleep either. So she put a pot of milk on the stove and they all sat up, thinking. She could not guess what weighed on their little minds; but occasionally, when her own thoughts bubbled over into speech — “That terrible woman!” — the dogs lifted their ears and gazed at her quizzically and compassionately. Then she felt obliged to explain herself and minimize her outburst in a reassuring tone. But as the night wore on, her outbursts became more frequent and her tone less and less reassuring.
Her first instinct was to turn Mrs. Drax into fiction, to make her a character in a novel. For June’s defense against anything unpleasant was that of the holiday traveller’s: “Oh well — it’ll make a good story when we get home!” (It is this belief, that all nastiness can be transmuted usefully into anecdote or art, that misleads some writers to the converse belief: that all art has its origins in nastiness — that we learn in suffering what we teach in song. This is flattering to the artist, for everyone likes to think he has suffered more than most. But June, who suffered little, did not fall prey to this fallacy. She knew that she wrote best when she was most cheerful.)